This graphic novel from 1995 tackles head on the subjects of civil rights and gay rights in the 1960s. Created by Howard Cruse, it draws on his experience of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. It is a work of fiction, though, in which the main protagonist is a young white man called Toland Polk. His awareness of race issues and civil rights grows at the same time as he comes to terms with his own homosexuality.
The world was changing in the 60s and this novel reflects the complexity of that time with people’s willingness to abandon long held views of white superiority tested by the attacks on black people around them. One of the reasons I love this book is because it celebrates the diversity of the human experience. Plus, it sticks up for important principles such as equality and justice.
Toland’s sister and her husband are important in his life, not just because they take him in when his parents are killed, because they stand for the traditional values and firm beliefs that he comes to reject. While his sister shows more human compassion, her husband’s views on black people and homosexuals are firm and unbending. Sammy Noone, a sailor home from the sea and openly gay, opens Toland’s eyes to another way of life but it isn’t one he is prepared to be open about just yet.
This is a complex graphic novel with dense pages full of activity. As Howard Cruse explained in an interview he gave, he wanted the complexity of a life over a year to be shown. It isn’t something you can summarise in a sentence.
‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ is an important book. It reminds us that many of our rights and freedoms in the western world were not easily won and should not be given up without a struggle. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?